January 19, 2010

SCHUMER REVEALS: MORE THAN ONE THIRD OF NEW YORK'S TROOPS OVERSEAS ARE ROBBED OF FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT TO VOTE BY OUTDATED, INEFFECTIVE VOTING SYSTEM

Military Voters Are Not Given Enough Time To Vote; Must Request, Receive and Return Ballots - All By Mail

In New York State, Process Takes A Snail-Like 82 Days

Schumer: Thousands Of New York's Heroes Are Being Disenfranchised

U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer today revealed that over 8,000 troops from Upstate New York State have been robbed of their fundamental right to vote by an absentee voting system that is outdated and inefficient. It currently takes as much as an astounding 82 days for troops stationed overseas to go through the process of voting absentee in New York State – the ballot spends three days with the voter, 72 days in transit, and 7 days being processed by the New York State Board of Elections. The process takes place entirely by mail and does not give enough time for New York State residents to apply, receive, and resubmit their ballots. Additionally, over half of the soldiers deployed overseas are unaware of the Federal Write In Ballot Program – the backup voting system established by the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA).

In 2008, military personnel from Upstate New York State requested a total of 20,092 absentee ballots, as provided for by the UOCAVA. Of those, 6,980 were never received back by the election officials in the U.S. and so were declared “lost” ballots. Another 1,246 were received but rejected for various reasons including a missing signature or failure to notarize. When combined, these two categories amount to 8,226 voters in Upstate New York—or 40.94 percent of the 20,092 who requested ballots—being disenfranchised, Schumer said.

“It is unacceptable that bureaucratic snafus could prevent our troops from exercising the very rights they are fighting to protect,” Schumer said. “This data provides only a snapshot of the problem, but it is enough to show that the balloting process for service members is clearly in need of an overhaul. We have an obligation to make it easier, not harder, for our military to cast their ballots when they are away on active-duty.”

There are currently two ways for military voters stationed overseas to cast a ballot under UOCAVA – the traditional military and oversees absentee ballot process, and the Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot program. The traditional process is enormously time consuming: A voter completes the form requesting an absentee ballot and gives it to the Military Postal Service (MPS). The MPS then transfers that application to the United States Postal Service, which delivers the request to the New York State Board of Elections. The NYS BOE processes the request and sends the absentee ballot, through the USPS. The USPS then transfers the ballot the MPS, which delivers it to the prospective voter. The voter then fills out the ballot and repeats the process. A recent Pew study found that the process of transferring the application and the absentee ballot takes up to 24 days in each direction, indicating that the ballot spends 72 days in transit (54 with the MPS and 18 with the USPS). The Pew study found that this frequently did not give overseas voters from New York State enough time to complete the process, and labeled NY a “No Time To Vote” state. New York is one of only three states that requires the entire process be completed by mail.

The alternate voting method for soldiers and family members stationed oversees is by Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot. The Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot is an alternative, downloadable ballot which can be used to vote in General Elections for the offices of President/Vice President, U.S. Representative, and U.S. Senator - as well as the non-voting congressional representatives from the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, etc. It is accepted by all states and territories. The FWAB is used by overseas voters and active duty uniformed services voters and their families and dependents who have requested, but not received their official absentee ballot in a timely manner. This program, intended as a backup for when soldiers and overseas voters don’t receive a traditional ballot in time, is also flawed:

• To use a Federal Write-In Absentee Ballot, an overseas voter had to have applied for a military ballot in a timely fashion.

• There is very little public information about the Write-in Ballot, and they are rarely used.

• Because these are ONLY write-in ballots, there are no candidates listed. The voter must know the candidate, and write enough to indicate voter intent. i.e. “Democrat” or “Republican” would not be enough to vote a straight Democratic or Republican ticket.

• The ballot must be witnessed or notarized.

The complexities involved in oversees voting is born out in the number of members of the military that don’t even attempt to vote: only 22 percent of the military voted in 2006, as compared to 40 percent of the general population.

Schumer, as Chair of the Senate Rules Committee which has jurisdiction over the voting process, will be evaluating several possible solutions this year, some of which are as follows:

• Mandate that States allow military personnel to complete an application for an absentee ballot and submit it online or via fax – this will remove one of the transfer periods and cut up to 24 days off the process in New York State

• Mandate that all absentee ballots sent to military personnel and their dependents be sent by postal mail at least 60 days prior to their due date.

• Mandate a single registration and absentee ballot application deadline

• Granting emergency authority to the chief election official in the state would allow him or her to designate alternate methods for handling absentee ballots in times of a declared emergency.

• Accepting ballot date and signature in lieu of postmark - Although UOCAVA voters may have voted and mailed their ballot in a timely manner, the ballot envelope may not have been postmarked on that date. By signing and dating the ballot the voter, under penalty of perjury, is certifying that their ballot was voted prior to the close of polls on Election Day.

• Providing the military’s voting assistance officers with enhanced training to better facilitate the election process overseas, and placing election information material in locations that soldiers frequently visit.

The break down of “lost ballots” is as follows. The data was compiled by the Senate Rules Committee and the Congressional Research Service (CRS), and comes from the states’ Board of Elections:

• Capital Region military voters requested 2,613 absentee ballots in 2008, but only 1,387 were returned and counted. The other 1,226 ballots (47 percent) were “lost”.

• Central New York military voters requested 2,316 absentee ballots in 2008, but only 1,462 were returned and counted. The other 854 ballots (37 percent) were “lost”.

• Hudson Valley military voters requested 3,539 absentee ballots in 2008, but only 2,125 were returned and counted. The other 1,414 ballots (40 percent) were “lost”.

• North Country military voters requested 1,625 absentee ballots in 2008, but only 892 were returned and counted. The other 733 ballots (45 percent) were “lost”.

• Rochester-Finger Lakes military voters requested 2,256 absentee ballots in 2008, but only 1,301 were returned and counted. The other 955 ballots (42 percent) were “lost”.

• Southern Tier military voters requested 2,355 absentee ballots in 2008, but only 1,175 were returned and counted. The other 1,180 ballots (50 percent) were “lost”.

• Western New York military voters requested 5,388 absentee ballots in 2008, but only 3,524 were returned and counted. The other 1,864 ballots (35 percent) were “lost”.

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